With direct access from the parking lot to your room, I know that Gates Au Sable Lodge in Grayling, Michigan looks more like a motel—or motor lodge—than the type of lodge Roxanne would have in mind. Still, I told her we would stay in a lodge if she came along on my trip to speak at the Celebrate Michigan Rivers event on the last weekend of September in 2018. She said “maybe.”
From the perspective of a traveler looking for a place to sleep, Gates Lodge is a motel. One door opens to the parking area, just like the doors at countless motels and motor lodges across the country. But another door on the back side of your room—or the front side if you prefer to think of it that way—is a personal narthex to the Holy Waters of the Au Sable River, complete with pew seating for stream-side worship.
From the perspective of an angler looking to experience one of most celebrated rivers in the history of American fly fishing, then, Gates Lodge is a lodge, and you can—in fact—make a convincing case that it is The Lodge among all midwestern fly-fishing lodges. Rusty Gates set this standard long ago; Josh Greenberg maintains it today.
Positioning more bait behind my snare, I told Roxanne that our good friend Jerry Dennis would speak at the event too, though he’d stay at a cabin on the North Branch of the Au Sable and wouldn’t join us at the lodge. But another speaker and friend of Jerry’s—Bob DeMott—would stay at the lodge, and Jerry told us—in fact he passionately assured us—that meeting Bob would be a treat for us both. She said “okay.”
Jim Harrison said that Bob along with Tom McGuane were the two best trout fishermen he’d ever met
Bob DeMott is the Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio University. He is widely and highly regarded for his many books and articles about the Nobel-laureate writer John Steinbeck, including an essay Bob is particularly proud of entitled “Of Fish and Men.” Bob is exceptionally deft at making this connection between angling and writing—something some call Anglish to emphasize the melding of angling with English—and, beyond Steinbeck, Bob has had rich relationships with the celebrated Anglish writers Jim Harrison and Nick Lyons. Endorsing Bob’s own book of essay’s on fly fishing, Angling Days, Jim Harrison said that Bob along with Tom McGuane were the two best trout fishermen he’d ever met, and, as I write this today, I can wholeheartedly endorse Bob’s membership in that elite duo. Bob also edited and contributed to a festschrift of sorts—something he jokingly called a fishshrift—for Nick Lyons entitled Astream: American Writers on Fly Fishing. Bob stands tall among the royalty of angling writers.
Roxanne and I ate dinner with Bob at the lodge’s restaurant the night we arrived, and the items on the menu—dishes like chicken paprikash, steak au poivre, and parmesan crusted whitefish—confirmed we were, in fact, dinning at a lodge, not a motel. And as we got to know each other over a few drinks, Bob told us that he and his partner Kate would—as he has done for thirty years—rent a house in a small community along the bank of Montana’s Madison River for the entire month of August.
He goes there, of course, to fish for trout in Montana’s most storied rivers. Rivers that I had never seen, let alone fished. This latter fact being at odds with my longing for the rivers where trout live, especially those in the west. A longing that began when I was a young boy and my mom took me to Colorado to visit a distant cousin who, despite a kind and welcoming smile, never seemed to anticipate our visits with the same enthusiasm that we did. Leading up to one particular visit, though, the cousin sent us tourism brochures from the State of Colorado. The brochures described rivers with names like the Frying Pan, Gunnison, Animas and Roaring Fork, and I fell asleep many nights listening to the sound of the roaring water I was certain I could hear in those photos. Once asleep, my mind canceled its regularly scheduled dreams about the pretty girls in my seventh grade class, replacing them with documentaries of me fishing in a torrential flow of water in some Rocky Mountain canyon holding tight to a spinning rod that strained to contain a native trout desperately fighting to reclaim its freedom somewhere around the downstream bend.
Once in Colorado, though, my mom drove our old Plymouth to the bank of some roadside pond where she paid a per-fish fee for us to catch trout that would literally fight for the right to wrap their lips around our baited hooks. Although the water in the pond didn’t roar, and there were no amnesty-granting bends for the fish to race toward, I caught rainbow trout in the west. And, as my mom said after she’d implanted the fragrance of fried fish deep into the fabric of every curtain and upholstered item in the cousin’s house, those Colorado trout tasted pretty damn good. The enduring smell of deep-fried fish was, of course, a major reason that the cousin kept her enthusiasm about our visits somewhat restrained.
When Bob invited me to join him and Kate in Montana, Roxanne reacted swiftly and with conviction. “Do it,” she said. I’d cancelled two other trips to Montana because of things that might or might not have warranted the cancelation, and—because of that—Roxanne held firm to her belief that I should—and would—go this year. When Bob enthusiastically welcomed my visit a second time, Roxanne told him I’d be there, and, as happens more often than not, she was right.
In his travelogue Travels with Charley: In Search of America, Steinbeck wrote:
I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.
Indeed, but Livingston, Montana—the northern gateway to Yellowstone—is about 1,200 miles from my home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and that’s a long drive for a first date. Roxanne and I lived twice that far apart when we first dated, though, and the wedding rings that followed have banded our fingers for more than thirty years. And as my friend Jerry Kustich once wrote, the opportunity to plug into the magical world of Montana far outweighs any inconvenience of getting there. So it was settled. I’d load the truck and drive west looking for love in all the right places.
But you don’t just drive to Montana and say “hello, my name is Tim and I’d like to catch some trout, please.”
But you don’t just drive to Montana and say “hello, my name is Tim and I’d like to catch some trout, please.” You need a plan for where you will fish and where you will sleep. Bob offered a place to sleep for a couple nights when I fished with him, but I needed an itinerary for three weeks. So I called on some friends I’d corresponded with but never met. A first date being a thing of my distant past, you see, I needed all the guidance and advice they could share.
Dave Delisi directed me to the Big Hole where he said I might find “brook trout of prodigious size, cutthroats, rainbows, grayling, and of course, our beloved native whitefish.” I bought my first bamboo rod from Dave when he worked at Sweetgrass Rods, and—through that experience—I learned to listen to his advice and trust his judgement. “Anywhere up there is just stunningly pretty and the fishing can be great,” he told me about the stretch of the Big Hole that extends for thirty miles upstream from Divide. As I studied maps of the river, I imagined driving along a highway for thirty miles, stopping nearly anywhere along the way to fish for all the species of trout I love, plus cutthroats, whitefish, and grayling. This was straight from my adolescent dreams.
Todd Tanner prefaced his advice with this: “My thoughts are going to be colored by the type of fishing I enjoy. In general, I like to find big rising trout, target them, and try to catch them. I enjoy doing that in pretty places. It doesn’t much matter to me whether there are other people around, as long as there are enough fish, and enough space, to scratch my itch.” Exactly the preface I hoped to get. Then he told me about rivers with big fish, rivers with elusive fish, rivers with rattlesnakes, and rivers with bears. In short, he described paradise, with one potential blemish. August, he warned, can be hot, dry and windy.
When I sent a note to Jerry Kustich, I expected sage advice about a state he’d lived in and fished for decades, but I got much more. Ultimately, he would guide me on a journey that would mean nearly as much to him as it would to me. On the day I left for Montana, Jerry summarized our connection in a short essay for the Sweetgrass Rods Newsletter:
Sweetgrass friend and Michigan writer Tim Schulz contacted me a month ago about a several week road trip he planned taking by himself to fish various waters around Montana. Since he has never been to the Big Sky State before, he was seeking my advice for an itinerary that would give him a good sampling of the Montana experience. In an instant flash of reverie, his request got me thinking about good ole times and the many road trips I once took to the Big Hole River and Rock Creek in the late 70s before moving to Montana in 1983. I close my eyes and still feel the excitement of sleeping in my truck and waking up to the whisper of flowing water humming an alluring tune like a siren beckoning me to dance with trout from sunup to sundown for days on end. Back then there were few people around, so the sound of solitude overwhelmed my senses inspiring a mood of introspection that has remained core to my fishing pursuits to this day. Oh…the memories!
Since Tim was going to be camping out of his truck I naturally directed him to the Big Hole River. Maybe it was just wishful thinking on my part to be back there again or just a wish for a friend to experience something special, I suggested to Tim that he start there. A visit to the Big Hole last fall forged for me the realization that the entire valley had not changed substantially in forty-some years; and though fly fishing has become glamorized the past couple decades, hiding in the riffles and runs of the Big Hole are ghosts from bygone days when fly fishing was still a solitary endeavor of quietude and reflection. Although these types of journeys are not likely in my future, I figured I could vicariously relive those magical Big Hole days through Tim’s ventures.
And with that I was set. I’d begin my first date with Montana in late July and end it in late August. I’d bring flowers, chocolates and fine wine, and I’d try to do all the right things at the all the right times. Most of all, though, I’d navigate that awkward first glance, first smile, first touch, and—dare I say—first kiss with the guidance and support of gracious friends who, long before me, had all shared parts of their hearts and much of their souls with this mysterious maiden named Big Sky.